Tag Archives: collective impact

Collective impact: Voltron Vs. The Borg

honey-bees-345620_1280A while ago, I wrote about how frustrated communities of color have been regarding collective impact (visit the Collective Impact Forum to learn more about what collective impact is and read thoughts on it).  Most CI efforts start out with the best of intentions. As they develop though, they sometimes warp into massive entities that conquer and destroy all in their paths. I liken this to Star Trek villain The Borg, a species made up of billions of individuals who got annexed into a single hive mind, whose catchphrase is “resistance is futile.” The Borg are a terrifying and destructive force, much like restricted funding or those annoying grants that make you get people to vote for your org.

I was talking about this at a training on equity, when a colleague said, “You know what collective impact should be more like?”

“The Golden Girls?” I asked.

“No. Voltron!” Continue reading

Why communities of color are getting frustrated with Collective Impact

hand-813525_960_720A while ago I wrote “Collective Impact: Resistance is Futile,” detailing the frustrations of CI and comparing it to The Borg on Star Trek. “Controlled by a hive mind that neutralizes any sort of individualism, and comprising billions of annexed individuals, [The Borg is] strong and terrifying, like an army of zombie robots, each with one eye that has a laser beam.” That was my first impression of Collective Impact, at least the way it’s being playing out in Seattle.

Years later, Collective Impact continues to spread, with mixed results and reactions. I talked to a funder on the East Coast last week, and she said her state is getting sick of the constant mention of Collective Impact. Meanwhile, in a Seattle, a colleague of mine said, “Collective Impact is like The Governor in The Walking Dead—seems nice, until you’re locked in a room with it.”

Talking to other nonprofit leaders, I’ve started noticing some patterns. There is definitely a sense of frustration of how CI has been manifesting in Seattle, and among leaders of color, that sense of frustration is even more palpable. We need to have an open discussion about how Collective Impact has been affecting diverse communities, and work toward some concrete actions that would make it more effective.

But before we get into the discussion, a couple of disclaimers. First, I am not against Collective Impact. I think it has done a lot of good, with Strive Together and Harlem Children’s Zone being two examples. And heck, I am involved with efforts that would arguably be labeled as Collective Impact: Rainier Valley Corps (RVC), which is developing nonprofit leaders of color and organizations led by communities of color with the ultimate goal of getting diverse communities to work together to effect change; and the Southeast Seattle Education Coalition (SESEC), a communities-of-color-led coalition rallying people together to help school and kids succeed in the most diverse quadrant of Seattle. (Also, to a lesser degree, ED Happy Hour, a backbone organization encouraging EDs to get together monthly to engage in mutually-reinforcing therapy involving alcohol). Continue reading

The Frustration with Innovation: Bright Shiny Object Syndrome and its effect on the nonprofit sector

Chicago_Bean_2_by_lightzoneOne of the great things about our sector is how innovative it is. There are smart, talented, socially-conscious people—nonprofit staff, funders, researchers, boards, donors, volunteers. We come up with amazing ideas all the time. In the past few years we’ve had 40 Developmental Assets, and 21st Century Skills. We’ve had evidence-based practice and practice-based evidence. We have strategic planning, then strategic thinking. We have Collective Impact and Youth Program Quality Initiative. We have STEM. We have online learning. Some trends, like the importance of parental engagement in students’ academic performance, die and then resurface. I call them “Zombie Trends.” Now the latest trend is “We need to send more nonprofit staff to Hawaii so they can relax and recharge!”

All right, fine, that last one may not be an actual trend, though maybe it should be.

Lately, however, I’ve been encountering among my peers more and more frustration with funders’ seeming obsession with innovation. An ED friend called it the Bright Shiny Object Syndrome (BSOS), this apparent inclination to drop everything and zoom in on the newest, sexiest concept to support, with sometimes negative consequences. The focus on early learning, for example, while important, has affected funding for youth programs, and the shift to collective impact has not always been positive (see “Collective Impact: Resistance is futile“). Continue reading

Nonprofit with Balls’s 100th post! Let’s celebrate by going home early.

unicorn sunsetHi everyone. This is Nonprofit With Ball’s historic 100th post. It is a momentous occasion. When I was a little boy growing up in a small village up in the mountains of Vietnam, my father said to me, “Son, we may be poor, but that does not mean we can’t accomplish great things. You are the smartest, most-talented, and, in certain very dim lighting, best-looking kid in our family. Bring honor to our name.” Well, look dad, I wrote 100 blog posts about nonprofits, many mentioning unicorns! I think our ancestors would be proud. They’re probably tweeting about it right now.

For this 100th post, I’m going to provide excerpts of some of my favorite early posts, the ones that you probably haven’t read because they’re so old. If this sounds very lazy, like those TV shows that do montages as a special episode (“Instead of writing a real episode, let’s spend 10 minutes looking at all the times that Joey said ‘How you doin’?’ and all the times that Ross acts like a completely unlikeable character”) you are right. But hey, this only happens every 100th blog posts; we’ll be back next week with new content. Here, read these posts below if you haven’t. And I think it’s only appropriate that we all go home early today in celebration. Continue reading

Who moved my unicorn: Adaptive versus Technical challenges in the nonprofit field

vunicorn2Day 3 of the Nonprofit Executive Leadership Institute (NELI). Thank you, Medina Foundation, for this scholarship so I can participate in this program. I am learning all sorts of interesting and useful stuff. For example, don’t eat nine pounds of potatoes before a 3-hour discussion on measurements and evaluations. Kidding, kidding!

A very useful concept that we have learned is the concept of Technical challenges versus Adaptive challenges. Good leaders must understand to differentiate one from the other, and oftentimes we totally suck at doing that. Technical problems are simpler and usually have apparent solutions. Adaptive challenges are so much more complicated and involve human beings and their emotions and crap like that.

“The most common cause of failure in leadership is produced by treating adaptive challenges as if they were technical problems,” says Ron Heifetz in his book The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, and I am beginning to see that as leaders and as a society we all do this all the time. For example, a while ago, a friend gave me a unicorn poster. I put it up on the wall next to my desk, and the unicorn looked down at me and inspired me to do my work. One day I came to the office, and the unicorn poster was gone! I asked a staff about it, and they said there wasn’t enough Velcro tape for it to stick to the brick wall, and that’s why the unicorn fell and had to be moved to the corner. But this was my unicorn, and I didn’t like it being mishandled and moved around because it was a really cool and rare unicorn poster with significant emotional value and I was used to it being where I left it.

All right, fine, shut up. Here’s a better example. Let’s say you have a program that teaches kids confidence and creativity through cooking. The program, however, is not financially solvent and has been causing the organization to lose money as it operates. The technical solution is to shut down this program. Simple, right? Of course not. “We are leading a blood-and-guts organization with real emotions inside it,” said our instructor, Professor Stephen Page. Staff and volunteers and participants of this program have likely put blood, sweat, and tears into their cooking. Which is probably why their dishes always come out so salty, ahahaha.

All kidding aside, think of the people involved with this program that we are cutting. They are invested in it, this is their baby, and this is a huge change. Change always involves loss, and when there is a loss, there are the stages of grieving, including denial and anger and bargaining and sadness and only at the end is there acceptance. “What is technical to us may be adaptive to someone else,” we learned, and a leader who only sees the technical side of a problem may totally screw up.

Leaders must understand the difference between what is technical and what is adaptive.

We see this misdiagnosis-and-thus-mistreatment (MTM) all over the field though, on larger scales. For example, “Huh, we don’t have enough people of color on our board, and 80% of our clients come from communities of color. Let’s ask a couple of POCs to coffee and talk them to joining our board.” That solves the technical problem and totally misses the point, which is that the organization must adapt and figure out why people of color are not on the board in the first place, what the obstacles are, what the privileges and power dynamics are, etc.

God, this happens all the time, I now realize, and it is annoying at best and absolutely horrendous at worst, perpetuating terrible and crappy systems. A while ago I wrote this post on an awful grant that low-income schools are forced to write. The MTM here is “Oh look, these poor schools need resources. Let’s provide them funding. But wait, with so many schools in need, how should we fairly distribute the money? Let’s make them write 30-page narratives each, and the school with the best written applications should get the funding.” So simple. So technical. And totally screwed up (Schools wih the most needs probably don’t have the resources to write competitive 30-page grants. And forcing struggling schools into a Hunger Games-like battle is fundamentally wrong).

If we truly want to help low-income schools succeed, we must think of it as an adaptive challenge. That means we have to reexamine our beliefs and systems and way of doing things. We cannot reduce blood-and-guts kids and families and communities to technical numbers and rating scales.

Technical fixes are so much quicker and easier to explain and implement, which is why our society loves them so much. But they only work for technical problems. If a plant looks droopy, you water it. If the roof is leaking, you slather some tar on it, stick a shingle on, staple it, and cover with duct tape (Or whatever; I don’t know anything about fixing roofs). We in nonprofits face far more complicated problems, and probably 90% of them are adaptive, not technical. Within our own organizations, we could have change in leadership, or staff turnover, or inactive boards, or a multitude of other challenges, and it is critical for leaders to recognize the adaptive elements and take actions accordingly.

But we must also pay attention to the bigger challenges that we are trying to address as a field. Too often our society treats problems (homelessness, hunger, poverty, low-performing schools, gentrification, racism, etc.) as technical challenges and implements technical solutions when they are far more complicated and requires getting people and systems to change and adapt. Sometimes, facing the complexity of adaptive societal challenges, we turn to technical solutions because they are better than the alternative of doing nothing. Let’s make poor schools write 30-page grants! Let’s get a woman to join our board! Let’s get two organizations led by communities of color to apply to join our coalition! Let’s form a collective impact backbone organization! Let’s put all our funds into collective impact even at the cost of vital direct services!

We need to understand these challenges better, because unlike me and my awesome unicorn poster, our kids and families and communities cannot be helped with some additional Velcro tape, no matter how well-meaning.